Well, you can’t fault them for trying.

And we must commend President Clayton Rose and the council of faculty, staff and students for organizing Monday night’s event, “Up For Discussion,” which brought Nicholas Kristof and Jason Riley to campus to discuss free speech and political correctness in higher education. Between this event and talks this fall by Dr. Noam Chomsky and Dinesh D’Souza, Bowdoin has clearly taken a step in the right direction towards ensuring that a wide range of political views get airtime on campus. This development, coupled with the absence of teeth-gnashing in response to any one speaker, warrants praise in itself.

Nevertheless, Monday’s discussion fell flat. And I was not alone in leaving Pickard Theater feeling, at best, underwhelmed. The discussion, moderated by Associate Professor of History and Environmental Studies Connie Y. Chiang, had the potential to turn fiery, yet it was anything but. On point after point, Kristof and Riley, rather than squaring off, simply agreed with one another. Hardly Lincoln-Douglas.    

From trigger warnings to ideological diversity, Kristof and Riley, though at times disagreeing on the specifics, generally arrived at a consensus: inclusion must come second to academic seriousness; college campuses desperately need greater ideological diversity; discomfort is not sufficient grounds for silencing speech.

So, what went wrong? Kristof and Riley certainly disagree on something. Kristof, just this year, published a seven-part series in The New York Times called “When Whites Just Don’t Get It,” chronicling white Americans’ racial naiveté  and its damaging effects on the African-American population. As for Riley, in his most recent work, “Please Stop Helping Us,” he blamed liberal economic policies for holding back the black population while simultaneously chastising that population for its lack of moral integrity, and claiming things like, “Black culture today not only condones delinquency and thuggery but celebrates it.”

For all their disagreements, how did Kristof and Riley remain so harmonious? To begin, the terms of the debate were poorly articulated. Political correctness, thus termed, has very few fervent supporters because the term itself has become derisive. Those who defend the practices and attitudes called politically correct defend them not as politically correct but rather as inclusive. Asking a proponent of safe spaces to defend political correctness is like asking a defender of income redistribution to defend state-sponsored theft. When thus framed, both disputants were able to skirt the issue. If asked to defend inclusion, neither would have gotten off so easy.    

Secondly, by framing the debate between an avowed liberal and an outspoken conservative as between “political correctness and free speech,” the event coordinators insinuated that the cause of political correctness would be defended by the liberal, while that of free speech by the conservative. This division in itself is misleading; those charged with so-called political correctness tend to fall on the left, but political correctness is not necessarily an inherently liberal issue. And while some of the more vocal defenders of free speech fall on the right, freedom of speech is a truly bipartisan issue.

Yet more detrimentally, the whole debate relied on a flawed premise. To frame a debate as between political correctness and free speech assumes a degree of antagonism between the two. This could not be further from the truth. Certainly there are high-profile cases where the two come into conflict on college campuses. But arguably these instances are misapplications of both ideals. When a college chooses to disinvite a speaker or to implement Orwellian speech codes on the basis of inclusion, it is in fact electing to exclude persons or viewpoints. Some may claim that these measures are part of social justice work, but they in fact undermine the very end that social justice aims to promote: the protection of fundamental civil rights for all. The derisive tone behind the term, is fueled in part by an awareness of this contradiction. Conversely, when a proponent of free speech decries protests of a speaker as hostile to free speech rather than challenging those protests on substantive grounds, he undermines the principle underlying freedom of expression, that unfettered debate is the most reliable path to important truths.

The two principles, far from being opposed, are mutually supportive: proponents of inclusivity rely intimately on the freedom of expression for minority views to be heard; good-faith proponents of free speech defend that right for the very purpose of uplifting marginalized populations. As the American Civil Liberties Union writes on its website, “the defense of freedom of speech is most necessary when the message is one most people find repulsive. Constitutional rights must apply to even the most unpopular groups if they’re going to be preserved for everyone.” The protection of every citizen’s fundamental civil rights: this is true social justice work.

An ongoing lawsuit at the University of Kentucky illustrates how true social justice work and free-speech in practice go hand in hand. In August, the university, citing privacy concerns, filed a lawsuit against the student newspaper over documents obtained by the paper regarding an alleged sexual assault by a former professor. The paper is challenging the suit. Here, as is true in the abstract, the protection of free expression and the protection of marginalized populations—in this case, victims of sexual assault—are working in concert.

Now, there were certainly other issues with the debate at Bowdoin. Kristof, while leaning to the left, remains a vocal critic of the intellectual hegemony of academia. So while Kristof and Riley disagree on a great many things, campus politics appears not to be one. Additionally, neither disputant appeared to have taken the time to familiarize themselves with the specifics of the debate at Bowdoin, which has centered around the tequila and gangster parties. Lastly, Professor Chiang’s method of questioning seemed to manifest the very tendency towards tentativeness in racial discussions that both disputants openly criticized.

So by all means, keep the discussion flowing. But next time, let’s make sure it has somewhere to go.